My best friend’s brother Joel is deaf.
Stone deaf. As deaf as a post. As deaf as it gets.
Cannot hear a thing... In fact, has never heard a thing.
I have met and spoken with Joel many times, always in the company of my friend. Relying on him to stand to one side and interpret like he is on BBC2 after midnight (although more often than not, wearing far dodgier clobber). Having an older brother who can’t hear anything, Stefan speaks sign language. I, having an older sister who hears what she wants to hear, don’t. The three of us have spoken about everything from family to football and each conversation passes seamlessly. Joel can read my lips and so knows what I am saying. He then responds towards me in British Sign Language which Stefan interprets and relays to me and so on and so on. Pretty standard, uneventful deaf person to non-deaf person ‘chat-a-nomics’ I would say. Nothing to see here.
I recall being out one lunchtime with my dad and running into Joel in the middle of the High Street. It was the first time I had ever met him without my friend there to act as an intermediary. The conversation and particularly how he responded throughout it has stayed with me ever since.
Instead of talking to us both in BSL, which would have been like gang signs to my dad and me, Joel made some simple gestures, motions and facial expressions which I will try and describe for you now, as well as my interpretation of what he meant by each:
I introduced Joel to my dad and told him we were out on our lunch break from work.
He shook my dad’s hand and smiled – Hi Jim, pleased to meet you.
He pointed down the street and drank from an invisible cup – I am just heading out for a beer.
He nodded at us both individually, done up an imaginary tie on his t-shirt and gave a thumbs up – Looking smart fellas!
He wiggled his fingers as if typing and then pointed to his watch and the sky before smiling again –What time are you working until? Hopefully not too late, look at the weather!
I told him we were jealous that he was heading out and that we had to stay until 6 pm as we were busy.
He smiled (the prick) and gave a hearty thumbs down – Nae luck!
I told him he looked well and asked him how his son Finn was getting on at school.
He smiled and motioned as if to pat a child on the head before giving two thumbs up – Finn is doing great.
He then wiggled his right finger on his left palm with a furrowed brow before tapping his watch – He is studying hard for his exams which are coming up soon.
I told him that I was seeing his brother later in the week and that I heard he had just bought himself a new car.
He grabbed an invisible steering wheel in front of him and with pursed lips gave the OK sign. He pointed to his eye and drew a little rainbow from right to left – Yeah, Stef’s new car is a cracker! I saw it last night.
The three of us exchanged closing pleasantries, and with another round of handshakes, said and waved our goodbyes and the conversation was over.
Beforehand, had I been asked how such an encounter might go, I fear I would have over analysed it and predicted a much more complicated affair than what transpired. He can’t hear me, he won’t understand me. I don’t know sign language, I won’t understand him. What can I do to make it easier? I don’t want it to be awkward for either of us.
The reality is that the conversation was no more difficult or time-consuming than any other conversation I have had in the middle of the street with anyone else. It ebbed naturally and flowed perfectly. All the right pauses were present in all the right places. Each of us fully understood what the other was saying. To quote the great Billy Hoyle, we could all ‘hear Jimi’. The truth is I have found myself stuck for far longer and in far more soul-destroying conversations in the past with people (supposedly ‘more’ abled) who had no barriers to understanding to put the blame on.
On the walk back to the office my dad commented on what a nice guy Joel seemed and that he didn’t know that he was deaf before today. I explained to him the extent of Joel’s deafness and that I was blown away with how smooth and ordinary the conversation had been. My dad was noticeably less whelmed (and rightly so). He hadn’t approached Joel’s deafness as a problem, barrier, obstacle or otherwise. When I asked him to explain he said this:
He’s deaf Boab, not daft.
And he was right.
In my surprise at how smoothly things had gone, I had made a mistake. I assumed that a communication problem was akin to an understanding problem. It isn’t.
By becoming more and more used to the mindset of - seek out a problem, destroy the problem, repeat, there are times when (if we are honest with ourselves) the ‘problems’ we identify and deal with aren’t even problems at all. Often, we focus on these problems, these barriers, these obstacles, these glass differences and try to dance around them. Almost as if to prove how much we care or how clever we can be in our solutions. Too much time and effort is spent on labelling them and discussing them and consequently, they are given more respect than they deserve.
Who cares that he is deaf? No one.
What difference did it make to the experience? None.
Why does it matter? As far as I am concerned the above conversation serves as proof that, in the nicest and most inclusive way possible, it doesn’t.
We should save the dancing and creative effort for the things that need it most. For the real problems which do need clever and innovative solutions. Time should be spent first on doing the things which make the biggest difference. Spent first on taking things that are bad, and which don’t work, and making them good. Prioritising real problems. Not spent focussing on, or worse, creating problems that aren't actually there. Not spent on taking OK things and making them more OK.
Being mindful of our limitations, both as individuals and as part of the groups we belong to is important. There is no doubt that it helps us empathise with others and be more considerate as to how they live and feel. But we shouldn’t be threatened or bullied by these limitations, perceived or otherwise. In fact, I would go as far as to say that where possible we should see straight through them. Level the screed by withholding judgment. Embrace our differences by ignoring them.
A person’s limitations and their worth have no correlation when it comes to communicating. Everyone is entitled to the same level of respect in conversation, civil, polite and professional alike.
Inclusivity is to be championed for sure, but for its benefits. Shared cultures, wide-ranging perspectives, diverse skill sets, personal growth, increased productivity etc. Not just for inclusivity’s own sake, that's for the birds.
The sense of value and worth that comes from being in a good team is when you know you are there because of your merits, not the pity of your limits.
We would rather earn it than be given it. I don’t know anyone who would say otherwise, however limited they may be, and in that sense, we are all the same.
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